Baking bread together – the defining human habit

Baking bread together – the defining human habit
Roosterkoek. (Photo: Ashleigh Frans)

South African heritage breads are not only deliciously diverse but also have companionship baked, fried or steamed into each and every dough.

You can’t spell companion without bread. The Latin word – companis – translates as “with bread” and literally refers to those sharing the aforementioned comestible. Pane and pain are still used to mean bread in Italian and French respectively – think panini and pain de campagne.

The exact definition of what constitutes bread is hotly debated but for the discussion that follows let us take it to be a staple food made from a dough of flour (in the modern era this is usually, but not always, wheat flour) and water which is often (but not always) leavened and is generally baked but can be steamed, fried or cooked over coals.

However heat is applied, the link between companionship and bread is as old and as widespread as the hills. Breaking bread together has been a defining human habit used, since time immemorial, to underscore existing social bonds and create new ones. In recent years, a combination of carbohydrate-phobic diets and a foodie fashionista focus on international bread genres has blinded many South Africans to the charms of local heritage breads and the ways in which they reveal and reinforce who we were, are and can be. Which is super-sad because when poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) said: “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens”, I am pretty certain he was predicting the perfection of Jo Fritz’s Calvinia roosterkoek …

Our nation’s first written record of bread-based companionship across cultures came about when Portuguese ship, Santo Alberto, sank off the Eastern Cape coast in 1593. Diaries kept by a waterlogged survivor note that the crew were offered “cakes of millet which they call ‘sincoa’” by the indigenous people that they met on their walk back to Delagoa Bay. To me, sincoa sounds a lot like what a 16th century Portuguese ear might hear upon encountering the word isonka that modern Xhosa speakers use as a general term for bread. The same food in isiZulu is isinkwa.

Mispronunciation aside, gifts and trades of millet breads were a significant part of what kept the Santo Alberto survivors alive on their 1,000-kilometre walk between what we now know as Sunrise-on-Sea and Maputo. The Santo Alberto diarist neglected to notice and/or record cooking methods which we can only guess at from much later descriptions given by ethnographer AT Bryant – who arrived in South Africa in 1883 when maize from the Americas had begun to overtake indigenous cereal grains as our nation’s primary starch. Time delay notwithstanding, his observation was that “the Zulu isinkwa is made with maize-grains sprinkled with water and then ground on the stone and the moist dough so formed wrapped up, as a large lump, within maize-spathes and so boiled in water for about three hours, then cut into slices and eaten as bread”.

Cosmo Dumpling’s delicious dombolo. (Photo: Trevor Thebe)

AmaPondo women I cooked with in Libode, Eastern Cape in the 1990s did exactly as Bryant described when making what they called isonka somgub’ombona or intlaphoyi. In Mpumalanga I have seen Mutsonga heritage food activist Praising Mabunda make what she calls xinkwa xa swifaki in much the same manner. The generous companionship of these cooks and those who cooked before them was evident in every bite of bread.

The subsequent introduction of wheat flour has given rise to a range of similar but lighter South African bread recipes including amadombolo (sometimes called “dumplings”). These smooth, airy, beautiful breads, generally steamed inside a plastic supermarket packet, are the most effective communicator of comfort I know.

There is no problem that is not made at least a little bit easier by dipping soft amadombolo into gravy. Almost everyone has a recipe but the muffin sized, individual orbs made by Petunia Thebe at Cosmo Dumplings in Roodepoort are particularly heavenly.

Chef Mmabatho Molefe, Emazulwini Restaurant, Cape Town. (Photo: Ian du Toit)

Speaking of heaven, in Cape Town Chef Mmabatho Molefe’s Emazulwini (Zulu for “place of heaven”) modern Nguni cuisine restaurant makes canape sized, deliciously witty, posh nosh igwinya nopholoni (fried bread with chicken terrine – aka polony – cheese catalan and roasted Parmesan) as part of her excellent, innovative, 6-course tasting menu (@emazulwini_restaurant). The effect is utterly angelic. Molefe’s New African Cuisine style seeks to respectfully reconfigure Zulu heritage food as restaurant chic and the igwinya nopholoni is an exquisite example of how she creates literal then figurative companionship by reaching across patron preconceptions about what constitutes fine dining. She also makes magnificent mielie bread…

Mielie bread and butter. (Photo: Ian du Toit)

Ntombi Hlongwane with her magwinya, fried hake, cheese and polony plate. (Photo: Supplied)

Those who prefer their amagwinya with Soweto street smarts adore Ntombi Hlongwane’s excellent amagwinya which she sells from a bucket while walking between the Mandela Museum and the Home Affairs building on Vilakazi Street. Orders can be placed on 078 546 5701 – R1 each, between R10 and R18 if you take the classic fried fish combo. 

Shared recipes do not necessarily bring social, political and economic togetherness – South Africans don’t need the Palestinian/Israeli hummus and pita problems to teach us that when we have so much of our own contested, cross over creole cuisines – but in our fondness for fried doughs there may be potential for cross-cultural companionship. The aforementioned amagwinya are generally slightly smaller and slightly sweeter than Afrikaner vetkoek but they are otherwise strikingly similar.

The main differences relate to fillings which regardless of ethnic origin are deeply delicious. The fantastic vetkoek at Napier’s Moerse Farmstall come laden with either curried mince or a generous dollop of apricot jam whereas Maria Mohlala’s exquisite amagwinya (sold from her street stall between the National Treasury and the Palace of Justice on Madiba and Paul Kruger street, Pretoria CBD) are embellished with mongola (garlic polony) or fried fish. Otherwise they are almost identical. Those seeking fancy vetkoek that reach out and redefine upmarket food (as Chef Mmabatho Molefe does for amagwinya at Emazulwini) will love Chef Jane Mulry’s Cradle of Humankind Bidon Bistro heritage hero stuffed with jugo bean chakalaka (, @bidonbistro).

My personal favourite South African fried dough delight is the anise-laden skuinskoek. I defy anyone, anywhere to find a finer food than the skuinskoek made by Mercia Miller at the Local is Lekker coffee shop on the forecourt of the KLK petrol station in Pofadder (071 920 2081). Miller’s husband (who is often behind the till) is also the only attorney in town which is good to know if there are fights over the very fine fried food. The skuinskoeke are made in batches of about 10 and I find that eating all of them with a cup of coffee is perfectly possible. Sharing is caring but I would advise ordering extra so as to avoid having to care that much. Those who struggle to share could consider forming friendships with ferments. Sourdough starters and homemade yeast are alive and needy. Not necessarily a friend, perhaps more of a companion animal. Since some starters literally require bread from a previous loaf in their ingredients they certainly fall within the definition of companion given at the start of this piece.

While Instagram is awash with international variations on these bubbling buddies, we have seen far less about South Africa’s heritage sourdoughs and yeasts. For those who want relatively low maintenance companionship might I recommend the lefulo foam yeast skimmed from the top of sorghum beer. Rustenburg-based dietician Mpho Tshukudu tells me that this was traditionally used when making the Tswana-style dikgaragana buns that almost always accompany weddings, funerals and other companionable community events in the North West Province. Sadly, while I have several dikgaragana bun makers among the contacts on my phone, all of them use instant yeast. Commercial yeast notwithstanding, Mabopane’s Johanna Molelekeng does dikgaragana proud (073 000 3628)

Mosbolletjies. (Photo: Ashleigh Frans)

Seeking a Cape-style companion? A homemade mos (grape pressing, wine making residue) yeast and flour starter was traditionally used to make mosbolletjies. There are many imposter mosbolletjies (either made with no mos at all or with raisin yeast) out there but the real deal is available from the La Motte Farm Shop during the harvest season (, @lamottewine). These superb, slightly sweet, anise-laden, brioche-like breads can be baked and eaten as is, dried into rusks or the raw dough can be fried into my previously lauded favourite, skuinskoek. And so, the companionable circle continues…

Those up for a challenge can try to coddle into existence the fabulously named “stinkvoete suurdeeg” which is a sourdough proper generally containing both grated potato derived homemade yeast and flour or sometimes dough from a previous bread). Be warned: making and supporting the stinkvoete is akin to conjuring up a golem. You may come to regret giving it life – especially since, as its name suggests, it smells terrible. There are recipes for soetsuurdeegbrood in Kook en Geniet, Svan H. Tuleken’s Die Praktiese Kookboek Vir SuidAfrika (although they both use far less evocative terms like aartappelplantjie and aartappelsuurdeeg) and Boesmanlandse Hunterkos by Hannelie van Niekerk and Theresa de Vries. www-mieliestronk-com has a recipe from an aged ouma’s ouma which lists a haystack among the required cooking equipment (to keep the stinky ferment cosy and far from human noses). With or without a haystack, these are living beings and can be difficult to deal with.

These days, it is almost impossible to swing a dough hook without hitting an Instagram post about European-style sourdough but heritage South African specific sourdough makers are few and far between. Through the ultimate Northern Cape culinary companion, Adri Van Wyk (who we will meet again as AntieA at the Kolskoot Vleismark) I was introduced to Vissie Oberholster in Upington (082 854 4492). Mrs O makes magnificent heritage soetsuurdeegbrood (some with kaiings in the dough!) that are worth moving to the Northern Cape for. Even without the joy that is rendered lamb tail fat (and there are few finer pleasures), the lovely chewy crust would induce a Browning-style stars and heavens bliss. Even if you don’t actually up sticks and settle in Upington, this bread is definitely worth taking a trip up the N14 highway for.

​​Jo Fritz with his beautiful bread. (Photo: Ian du Toit)

Once there, do take a turn past the very fine roosterkoek and boerewors combo being braaied by Herman Stevens outside the Kolskoot Vleismark (they also stock the super delicious AntieA Koeksisters) before heading on to Calvinia where chef Jo Fritz of Jo’s Karoo Food (@jos_karoo_flavour) makes heritage bread magic in so many ways. Doyenne of Afrikaans cuisine Errieda du Toit says: “I will give my birthright for his denningbrood topped with fynvleis: the Karoo lamb bones are cooked and the meats left on the bones scraped off, much like pulled meat, only finer.”

Can’t get to Calvinia? The breakfast menu at Chef Bertus Basson’s Geuwels restaurant on Vergenoegd Löw, Stellenbosch has a jolly nice smoked pork belly and egg topped roosterkoek (@geuwels). At Bergbron Plaaskombuis in Blackheath, Johannesburg, each roosterkoek comes with a complimentary glass of homemade ginger beer (@bergbronplaaskombuis) and there are climbing frames galore for younger diners to find companions. Great vetkoek too.

Askoek ember breads. (Photo: Ashleigh Frans)

Energetic eaters whose idea of companionship includes dancing are sure to adore the smoky pleasures of Nama-style askoek. Think white bread dough baked directly in the embers of a fire resulting in a delicious smokiness of flavour. The dancing comes in by way of the !Ikhapara Nama traditional celebratory dance (also referred to as Rieldans). This fast-paced jig includes a myriad gestures many of which reflect animal courtship but there are also askoek associated elements. Anyone who has ever eaten askoek will know that ash must be dusted off the ember-baked breads to avoid grit between the teeth and this gesture is immortalised in the fast-paced “askoek slapping” steps of the !Ikhapara. The dance is a deliciously companionable affirmation of Nama, Upper Karoo epicurean identity. The Williston Winter Festival is one among many hot spots for cool askoek slapping dance groups. In addition to being a damn fine way to make stomach space for the accompanying afval potjie, the !Ikhapara is surely the ultimate expression of bread-based companionship… DM/TGIFood

The author supports The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg. Their 24-hour crisis response service provides holistic social work support which includes housing and feeding up to 120 survivors of domestic violence daily. Saartjie Baartman Centre 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Meirion Griffiths says:

    Fascinating and entertaining article about an aspect of South African culture that is not as widespread as it should be. Restaurateurs, coffee shop owners and chefs, please take note!

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